An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

CAMBODIA: Plus ça change…


Plato (429-347 B.C.): “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Nikita Krushchev (1894-1971): “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridge even where there is no river.”

James Q. Wilson (1931-2012), former President of American Political Science Association: “Without Liberty, Law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without Law, Liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”

Jean-BaptisteAlphonse Karr (1808-1890): “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

More than six months after the July 28 national election, the divide between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party grows wider still.

I remain scepticalabout “negotiations” between these two uncompromising parties,each demanding all-or-nothing as supporters cheer, and the people aresqueezed in between.

As national institutions that should be apolitical are instead openly committed to the current regime, negotiations between government representatives and the opposition are unlikely to produce meaningful or long-lasting results.  In the face of ongoing labor unrest, particularly in the garment industry, Defense Minister Tea Banh has twice in recent days affirmed that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces will protect “election results and support” Hun Sen.  On January 23rd, National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha declared that the National Military Police will protect Premier Hun Sen’s government.  Hun Sen already has a separate, unique contingent of body guards who presumably remain loyal to him. The judiciary is already Hun Sen’s tool.

Still, it’s illogical to brand every member of the RCAF, the Police, and the Courtsas endorsingHun Sen’s oppressive acts. Cambodian democrats should work on winning over the silent many and neutralize the extremists on both sides who demonize others: Not all supporters of the CPParedevils, nor are all who support the CNRP saints.  We err as citizens when we assume the motives of one group are entirely benevolent and those of another entirely malevolent.  American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., a student of Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”

The CNRP says it will boycott the National Assembly until the CPP agrees to a mid-term election (in 2016 or earlier); that there will be no talks with the CPP until the currentban on public demonstrations is lifted. KemSokha, an outspoken CNRP leader, vowed, “We will continue to hold demonstrations” until the government agrees to a fresh election.

UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, wrapped up his recent six-day visit with a press conference on Jan 16. He urged the government “to exercise flexibility in working out a solution to end the impasse”; he suggested to CNRP leaders “the need to demonstrate flexibility in their dealings with the Government in reaching a political compromise”; he advised both parties to “embrace change” and “find a way to manage it in the best interests of the country.” Subedi concluded: “(P)olitical reconciliation was the only way forward for the country.”

Two days later, Hun Senwent public: “Do not try to put this country hostage for bargaining your power,” he told the opposition;any attempt to stoke a civil war with his government will be “cracked down in just hours,” challengers would not be “spared.” He asked CPP supporters to defend the government, suggested they come out in force and take to the streets. He snapped at his opponents, “Do you want to (experience) or try a taste?”

His words are, of course, inflammatory, and leave no opening for negotiations to move forward.

New round of Khmer political ‘Ramvong’

An ASEAN diplomat suggested to mesome time ago, just as Cambodians love to Ramvong,a popular Khmer folk dance in which dancers move in a circle to the rhythm of drumbeats, attempting to outdo each other with elaborate hand and leg movements called chakkbach,so factional Khmer leaders needto do their circle dancing ritual before they would sit down and speak with each other.

DuringSubedi’s visit, a story about a “high-ranking (CPP) government official” allegedly acting as a CPP-CNRP “go-between,”appeared in The Phnom Penh Post‘s “Political deal on horizon.” Reportedly, “80 percent” of the issues were agreed upon in so-called “secret negotiations” – including signing an agreement before the King.It was alleged that in a “letter” from Sam Rainsy “requesting Prime Minister Hun Sen to negotiate and compromise,”Sam Rainsy indicated he”wants to be vice-president” of the National Assembly.”A snap election and Hun Sen stepping down – key demands of the opposition-led street protests and mass demonstrations that rounded out 2013 – are not on the agenda.” It cannot be determined if there is any truth to all of these assertions, or if they comprise another round of Ramvong.

The CNRP denied there ever was such a letter, or such a meeting.

Ata Jan 15 meeting, Hun Sen asked Subedito persuade the CNRP to join the National Assembly and to negotiate, revealing, perhaps, some concern by Hun Sen about the legitimacy of his government.

For its turn, the CNRP demanded electoral reform and a “re-election (sic)” first, and by “midterm.”The CNRP banks on the populace rejecting Hun Sen’s rule.

“I believe it is imperative for the leaders to overcome the mistrust and immediately return to the negotiating table without further delay, possibly in the presence of a third party either to witness or mediate if deemed helpful,” said Subedi.

But the KhmerRamvongchakkbach needs to roll on – around and around in a circle.

CPP tactic and strategy

Hun Sen is not blind to the growing threat from the popular demonstrations that have continued in the country for six months. He called on his supporters to rally to his government’s defense. He applies discretionary arrests as both a tactic and a strategy.

Thus, when civil society representatives, garment workers, and community groups, minus CNRP members, organized a three day-event on Jan 21, Jan 22, and Jan 23 to hand-deliver to foreign embassiespetitions signed by 181 local and regional society organizations calling for the release of 23 people arrested by authorities and justice for those killed/wounded during the January crackdown, Hun Sen’s police arrested eleven rights advocates in front of the US Embassy and on the road to the French.On Jan 22, civil society representatives were reported to “quietly deliver” petitions to foreign missions. Yet on that day, more than 100 unionists and CNRP members (led by Sam Rainsy and KemSokha) marched through Phnom Penh, in spite of the ban on gatherings of 10 or more people, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the murder of labor leader CheaVichea, as police looked on.  And on Jan 23, some 200 civil society representatives and monks hand-delivered petitions to sevenembassies. There were no arrests. Hun Sen picks and chooses when to employ arrests and resorts quickly now to force to deal with issues of free expression and assembly of groups.

Thus, on Jan 21 a CNRP forum at Saang district some 50 kilometers south of Phnom Penh in Kandal province, was cancelledas hundreds of riot and military police appeared and CPP members were found mixed among the crowd. While a CNRP rally of several hundreds of supporters on Jan 25 in Prey Veng provinceunfolded without incident, a Jan 26 planned public meeting by the CNRP at its headquarters in Kompong Cham province, about 100 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh had to be cancelled. Military trucks blocked the road to prevent access to the CNRP office in KompongSiem district (which surrounds Kompong Cham-ville), while more than 1,000 CPP supporters assembled on the grounds of and around the hotel where CNRP KemSokha was staying, condemning Sokha and Sam Rainsy through loudspeakers and on placards. KemSokha charged that when he finally left the hotel for the meeting place, his vehicle was blocked by government forces.

Some CPP protagonists cheered the cancelations as victories for Hun Sen victory, but these are hollow victories, indeed.

“Overthrow the government”

On the same day that Hun Sen’s government forced the cancellation of a planned CNRP meeting in Kompong Cham, Hun Sen’s riot police used electric cattle prods on protesters and beat them with truncheons as union protesters (again, minus CNRP members) gathered at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.

The request of nine unions and associations to hold a rally of some 10,000 participants at Freedom Park on Sunday, Jan 26, was denied. The rally was to demand the release of 23 detainees from prison, a minimum wage of $160 per month for garment industry workers, and the lifting of the government ban on demonstrations. The Cambodia Daily quoted Lt. Gen. KhieuSopheak of the Interior Ministry: “If people demonstrate, it means they are trying to overthrow the government.”

But union leaders said they would hold the rally anyway.When several dozens of garment workers, union members, land activists, and Buddhist monks tried to enter Freedom Park, they were met by baton-wielding riot police. Ten people were reported to have been injured.

The Dailyreported a man among the protesters “striking out at the helmeted security guards with brass knuckles,” and another man “hurling brick-size chunk of concrete” in the guards’ direction but said no one was struck by the concrete. The crowd of protesters suspected the instigator of being an agent provocateur, chased him down and beathim about the head until bloody. Soon after, the protesters chased down and beat another man who quickly “produced an ID card.” Both men were taken in the tuk-tuk to police headquarters.

Demonstrations by groups other than the CNRP are more frequent than in the past. On Jan 27, independent Beehive Radio Station owner Mam Sonando and some 300 people marched to the Information Ministry to demand a government license to operate a television station just like other radio stations do. Police used smoke grenades and electric batons to disperse the demonstrators. It was reportedthat journalists and an AFP photographer were hit by the police.

Hun Sen under pressure

Premier Hun Sen’s heavy-handed handling of protesters is evidence of concern over his declining popularity. Even in an election in which results were compromised, his political party lost about one quarter of its seats in the National Assembly to a re-invigorated opposition. CPP authorities had let protesters marchand rally at first, until it was clear Cambodians’ grievances would continue to be given expression in street demonstrations. Never before had a people traditionally known for passivity and deference to authority become so energized, as on Dec 29 when more than 100,000 people marched in Phnom Penhstreets, and shouted in front of Premier Hun Sen’s office forhim to step down.

When the annual $5 billion income (or 35 percent of Cambodia’s GDP) brought to the country by the garment industry was threatened as garment workers went on strike for better wages and working conditions, calling as well for Hun Sen’s resignation, Hun Sen could no longer tolerate such dissent.  Ninety percent of garment workers are women, who work 60 hours a week for a wage of about $80 per month.

Pressure on Hun Sen mounts.

Subedi pressed Hun Sen on different reforms, including reforms of the National Election Committee, voter registration, and voter list; insisted on Hun Sen bringing to justice “those responsible for giving orders and carrying out orders” in the recent shooting of garment workers; and suggested the government could afford a minimum wage of $160 per month for garment workers. Recall that a working group of government officials, union representatives, and the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia (GMAC) had found the minimum living wage to be $160. But, the Labor Ministry’s advisory committee decided on an incremental increase to reach $160 by 2018.

Meanwhile, leaders of Cambodia’s unions have warned of a “grand strike” unless there’s a resumption of negotiations on the minimum wage.

Immediately after Hun Sen’s military crackdown on striking garment workers, his ban on peaceful assembly, andhis closing of Freedom Park, the 12.5-million-member American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) sent a letter dated Jan 6 to Hun Sen.The letter condemns the government’s violence against garment workers, and the government and GMAC’s campaign of intimidation of trade union leaders. It calls for an”immediate cessation of violence” and for “an independent investigation” into the shooting of garment workers. It calls on the government and the GMAC “to commit urgently to enter into meaningful negotiations with unions to increase the minimum wage in the garment sector.”

The AFL-CIO warned: The Cambodian garment industry’s “preferential trade access” to the European Union, and anyadditional trade benefits for access to the US, “are conditional on a commitment” by the government to “internationally recognized worker rights, including freedom of association”; that recent events reveal “the Government of Cambodia has failed to demonstrate this commitment.”

On Jan 15, in an open letter, six US and Canadian retail associations declared their commitment that “all the products that they produce, source and sell are manufactured under lawful and humane conditions”; and to “promoting the safety and security of workers in our supply chains.” They called for continued wage negotiations “to permanently resolve the situation.”

On Jan 17, three global unions (International Trade Union Confederation, Global Union Federations UNI and Industrial Global Union) and 30 major retail and garment companies (from Adidas to Walmart) sent a letter to Premier Hun Sen calling for an investigation into the killing and wounding of striking workers, respect for fundamental workers’ rights, and the setting up of a proper process for setting minimum wage. As the ITUC Secretary General put it: “Cambodia’s garment industry is worth more than US$5 billion annually. It’s time the workers who produce that wealth get their fair share, and that the government fulfils its responsibility to protect workers’ rights and establish a sound industrial relations system.”

On the same day, US President Barrack Obama signed a spending bill that suspends some of the annual $80 million in aid that goes straight to the government until an investigation into election irregularities is implemented or until the CNRP joins the National Assembly.

A day earlier, on Jan 16, the 766-member European Parliament, one of the 28-member state European Union’s supranational independent institutions, passed a strongly worded Resolution calling on Phnom Penh to “immediately release the 23 people unjustly arrested”; urging “Cambodian authorities to thoroughly investigate and hold to account those responsible for deaths and injuries among peaceful protesters”; calling on the “Government to accept an independent, internationally assisted investigation into allegations of vote fraud and other irregularities around the July 2013 elections”; among others. The EU is Cambodia’s largest single aid donor.

Yet,according to The Cambodia Daily’s “EU Ambassador Distances Local Delegation From Resolution,” EU Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautainasserted the EU Parliament’s Resolution “had not resulted from advice from the (EU) Delegation to Cambodia.” Two days later, Sam Rainsy left for Europe, to seek support at the Jan 28 UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, and to follow up on action by the European Commission(executive body of the EU) on the European Parliament Resolution.

On Jan 22, the President of Worldwide Human Rights Movement, FIDH, called on Phnom Penh to “comply with its obligations under international law” and”(lift) a blanket ban on public demonstrations,” while the Secretary General of the World Organization Against Torture, OMCT, reminded, “One cannot say it more often [sic]: far from being the cure to a problem history is replete with examples that quelling dissent only exacerbates tensions.”

Human Rights Watch Geneva director Juliette de Rivero reminded, “Hun Sen’s government violates human rights on a daily basis by violently preventing the opposition, trade unions, activists and others from gathering to demand political change. Countries at the Human Rights Council should condemn this brutal crackdown and insist the Cambodian government engage in serious reforms.”


Premier Hun Sen’s call on visiting UN Subedi on Jan 15 to be a mediator in CPP-CNRP political negotiations was welcomed by CNRP leader Sam Rainsy. Subedi said he would consider being a mediator if both parties make an official request. That was good news.

The Phnom Penh Post’s “CNRP looks to UN, King,”reported CNRP leader KemSokha telling supporters in Takeo he had asked Sam Rainsy to write to the King and the UN requesting their involvement in formal negotiations. A day after, The Postreported, the Kingsaid he is willingto be a mediator if both parties submit a request.

Some Cambodiansinvoked Article 8 of the Constitution (the King as a symbol of national unity) as reason for the King to unite both parties in talks. But, the King who perhaps misstepped by endorsing the CPP’s decision to inaugurate the National Assembly when half of the country appealed for a delay, should not be put in a position to “referee” the CNRP and the CPP. Fortunately, the Royal Palace decided that the King and the Queen Mother’s names be left out of politics in the search for a political solution to the impasse created by both parties.

I believe Hun Sen and CPP leaders have an awareness that their time in power is dwindling. Nor, however, are they likely to give up power voluntarily. Some arrangement for power-sharing must be developed and the CNRP must take its seats in the National Assembly.

Think 2017

In three years, Cambodians will hold their next commune-level elections, the results of which will dictate the outcome of Cambodia’s 2018 national election. Commune election outcomesshapethe foundation of Cambodia’s political system.

In brief, in the June 3, 2012 third commune elections, some 5.87 million Cambodians of about 9.2 million eligible voters, gave the CPP control over 1,592 commune councils (out of 1,633 communes), for a 5-year term. Sam Rainsy’s Party won 22 commune councilsand the Human Rights Party, 18. In the 2007 second commune elections, the CPP won 1,592 commune councils; the SRP, 28 (6 more commune councils than in 2012); the royalist FUNCINPEC Party, 2.

In simple terms, the CPP controls more than 97 percent of the commune “chiefdoms,” or, as a friend reminded me, 97 percent of commune “fiefdoms.” Since the councils appoint village chiefs, this means Cambodians have a communist structure right down to the village level.



The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:

Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be reached at


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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-004-2014
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 30-01-2014